Mike Clevinger was forced to leave his Saturday start against the Blue Jays after five innings of one-hit ball and 10 strikeouts. This was disappointing, but the initial reports were promising, with Clevinger expressing that it was a precautionary measure. Given that he was ultra-dominating over his first two starts, the hope was that it was a minor back strain that wouldn’t prove to be more than a brief setback. Those hopes were dashed this morning with Cleveland manager Terry Francona stating that it would be six-to-eight weeks until Clevinger would even pick up a baseball, and unless he meant that Clevinger had secretly developed a method for telepathically launching crippling sliders and curves, this amounts to Bad News.
It’s especially poor timing for Clevinger considering what a roll he’s been on to start the 2019 season. If his back was bothering him before, his performance gave no indication. Against the White Sox on April Fools Day and the Blue Jays on Saturday, Clevinger combined for 22 strikeouts and two hits allowed over 12 innings and had yet to be scored on. Admittedly, this was against the White Sox and the Blue Jays, two teams with very poor offenses, but he didn’t just dominate two bad teams, he pretty much turned their offenses into armies of Chris Davis clones. (Note for budding mad scientists: this theoretical would not be a good use of your resources). Clevinger even added a couple mph in fastball velocity this year, continuing his pattern of making one of his pitches absolutely frightening each season. Previously mostly used to set up his curveball and slider, his fastball was at +3.8 runs for the year, already his career high!
The good news is that in the early analysis at least, it appears that Cleveland’s simply being careful with Clevinger. Careful would be a kind way to describe a rather disappointing offseason, largely fueled by three of the other four teams in the AL Central being terrible and the remaining team one that saw Cleveland’s free agent apathy and actually reduced the team’s payroll. Running the numbers, the loss of Clevinger barely puts a ding in the team’s playoff odds, but what is of interest is what option the Indians go to. Unlike in some cases, the best fill-in for Clevinger is non-obvious. So let’s arbitrarily rank some candidates from best to worst!
Dallas Keuchel remains out there, so he needs to be addressed before being summarily dismissed. It would be nice for the Indians to take the opportunity to sign Keuchel, similar to how the Phillies brought in Jake Arrieta, and then have other pitchers as trade bait once Clevinger is healthy, or maybe even, theoretically speaking, Danny Salazar at some point. It would give the team an opportunity to pick up an outfielder that they sorely need this summer, but in reality, if the Indians weren’t even going to extend a qualifying offer to Michael Brantley, they’re not going to spend more on a player where they have a surplus.
After essentially losing two years of his career to Tommy John surgery, arguably two-plus given his elbow was bothering him in 2016 as well, the Indians have brought Cody Anderson back slowly. But at 28, the Indians are largely running out of time to see what they have in Anderson. My favorite option would have been Triston McKenzie in the hopes of catching lightning in a bottle, but his own back injury makes him a non-option as Clevinger’s replacement. Cleveland got more innings out of their starters than any team in baseball in 2018, with only the Astros within 50, so the relief workload isn’t so much that you can’t afford to look at a guy who you may only be comfortable throwing four innings at first.
Jefry Rodriguez is fascinating, the closest thing to a power pitcher on this list, but there are still two primary issues for him to work out: the lack of a real changeup after his fastball/curve, and lapses in command. I’d rather seem him develop in Triple-A for now or, if forced to pitch in the majors, in the bullpen, until either his command improves or he develops a third look in his repertoire. The missing-plates-to-missing-bats ratio is just too high right now for me to want to throw him in as the fifth starter.
One benefit of Chih-Wei Hu is that he is on the 40-man roster and he’s healthy, two things that the Indians don’t have in spades after their desired starting rotation. Hu’s reportoire is wide but not deep, one of the few pitchers explicitly using a palmball these days, but he also got hit very hard in spring training and lacks an out pitch. But he’s at least interesting, and if you can’t choose good, I’ll take that as a consolation prize.
Adam Plutko’s temporarily — hopefully — out with a forearm strain, so he is unable to instantly replace Anderson. Plutko was a fill-in for multiple stretches of 2018, but he allowed a brutal number of homers. I do still want to see more of him; as a prospect, Plutko was better at using his changeup than he showed in the majors, and one also has to remember that in 2018, he was more focused on recovering from hip surgery than his mechanics. Like Anderson, Plutko’s old enough that the clock is ticking on seeing what he can do.
So what will the Indians do? I expect the state of the rest of the division will keep the team from taking an aggressive option, and while there’s always the chance they do something unexpected, like add Shao-Ching Chiang to the 40-man roster or really jump the gun on Sam Hentges, I think they’ll play it safe here. Anderson strikes me as the safest option that also tells the Indians something new about a pitcher, but I don’t think that if they go this way, Anderson would have a long leash. The injury’s probably more serious to Clevinger than to the Indians, with Clevinger going from looking like a very early Cy Young breakout candidate to missing as much as half of the season. I wouldn’t be shocked if they turn to Rodriguez, even though I think he’d benefit the most from Triple-A right now.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.